Don’t look back in anger

Diane Curry
Friday, 14 February 2020

In 1988, Partners of Prisoners (POPS) established itself in Manchester as a local support group for families of prisoners.

Many of the families we supported were visiting loved ones in the prison then known as Strangeways. The stories they shared and our own knowledge of supporting our loved ones in that situation, were informing us that there were major problems at the prison, including overcrowding, negative staff culture, and ‘Dickensian’ visiting conditions. 

The events of 1 April 1990 and the following 25 days, threw a spotlight on a world that many members of the public didn’t know about, it challenged the way prisons were managed and the way prisoners and their families were treated.

Manchester woke up on that Sunday morning to the news that several prisoners were on the prison roof and as the day wore on, many families flocked to the prison where it was becoming obvious that something ‘shocking’ was unfolding.  Many families started to gather outside, distressed and concerned for the safety of their loved ones. They had nowhere to go to gather for support as the Visitor Centre had been taken over by the prison as a command suite for negotiating their response to the situation.  

The circus and the chaos arrives

The noise was deafening. Helicopters circled the protestors on the roof, camera bulbs were constantly flashing, sirens were wailing from the numerous police vans, ambulances and fire engines that had arrived. The media ‘circus’ then turned up, bringing with it burger vans and the eyes of the world.

Families were shouting up to their loved ones, some were crying, some were in shock as false news reports of rising numbers of dead circulated.

As well as the noise, there was the light. The prison had installed megawatt lighting to shine up onto the roof on the protestors 24 hours per day. During the day it wasn’t noticeable but at night the prison and the roof top protest could be seen for miles around. It cast an eerie glow across the city. It felt like the whole city came to a standstill for 25 days as we watched the drama unfold.

In the midst of all this chaos and mayhem no information or support was being passed on to the families that gathered outside and also those that were sat watching from their own homes. Families were calling for the prisoners to end the protest. They were worried about their loved ones especially when there was talk of prisoners being beaten and killed, but still nobody came to put their minds at rest.

The role of families in prisoners' lives

Once again they were being treated as peripheral to the whole process. No families that POPS spoke to at that time wanted the protest to continue and all stated openly that they felt they could have offered some assistance to the authorities if they could have spoken to their loved one directly.

After 25 long days and nights, the rooftop protest eventually came to an end as the remaining protestors gave themselves up, some stating it was ‘in the best interest of their families’.

The recommendations arising from the subsequentWoolf Report to which POPS contributed, addressed the issues of decency and inclusion. To this day POPS values the importance of the decency agenda just as much as the role families may have in the reducing reoffending agenda. Decency is the key factor in any reform of the prison regime and families have to be viewed as a positive influence for change.

POPS does not condone the riot at ‘Strangeways’, now renamed HMP Manchester, but it does recognize the impact of that action on penal reform. The riot was a catalyst for change and like other events in history, it took a negative action to prompt such a change. In the main we now have well managed family support services providing advice and information for families. 

Since Strangeways

Visiting rooms have since been refurbished and/or redesigned, play facilities have been introduced and quality refreshment services allow for the visit to feel less ‘institutional’. POPS recently became the family support provider at HMP Manchester and are working hard with the prison to become much more than its previous reputation.

However, there is trouble brewing again within our prisons today. The good work that took place after the riot in 1990 is in danger of being undone if we fail to act quickly. We must prioritise the role that many families can play in the smooth running of a prison, and in helping their loved one to make the changes they need to make.

Offering families a role in prisoner progression

Families often want the same end result as others working in the criminal justice system, which is for their loved one to stop committing crimes and to be given the opportunity to lead a different life. The recent Farmer Review highlights the continuing importance of the inclusion of families in all aspects of a prisoner’s progression especially in relation to public protection, safety and order, reform and preparing for life after prison. To do this we must all acknowledge that families just might be our greatest asset and value them accordingly.  

Diane Curry OBE is the CEO of POPS and has her own personal experience of supporting somebody through a custodial sentence at the time of the riot. She is also one of the speakers at the conference on 1 April – After Strangeways: The past, present and future of prisons.